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UFC changes policy on when it announces failed drug tests

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Former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos has been very vocal about how his failed drug-test was announced before he had a chance to fully defend himself with USADA.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC has made a significant change in the way anti-doping policy violations will become public.

No longer will the UFC announce when a fighter is facing a potential anti-doping policy violation when the result comes in, promotion officials told ESPN for an article that published Friday. Instead, the announcement about a violation — or lack thereof — will only be made after the conclusion of USADA’s adjudication process.

In other words, the UFC will only make a failed drug test public after USADA completes its investigation and determines the level of sanction, or none at all. This is more in line with how USADA announces doping violations for U.S. Olympic athletes.

If a fighter fails a drugs test or admits to a prohibited method or use, he or she will still be provisionally suspended and unable to fight. However, that potential violation will not be made public until a determination is made by USADA.

“If an athlete has a positive drug test, we aren’t putting them in a fight until their case is resolved -- but what we can do is give the athlete an opportunity to adjudicate their issue without the public rushing to judgment,” UFC chief legal officer Hunter Campbell told ESPN. “Announcing the test result creates this narrative around the athlete before people understand the facts.”

The UFC quietly made a change to its policy in July, per ESPN. UFC executives declined to comment to MMA Fighting about the changes or answer any questions about them, promotion vice president of corporate communications Chris Belitti said. USADA officials said the change was in the UFC’s policy — not on USADA’s side — so it was not the agency’s place to comment.

Many UFC fighters who have had potential violations announced have expressed displeasure with how the process worked previously. Most recently, Junior dos Santos was very vocal about having his potential violation announced, which he believes tarnished his image, only for it to come out later that he did not intentionally take any performance-enhancing drugs.

UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky told ESPN that in almost 34 percent of adjudicated cases it was determined that fighters were not intentionally attempting to enhance performance. That was one of the key factors in the UFC changing its policy, according to the ESPN report. Many of these situations have involved contaminated dietary supplements.

”Part of the feedback Jeff and I have received from the athletes is, ‘I would have appreciated the opportunity to adjudicate this, so the story could be I tested positive, a full investigation was conducted and it was found the use was unintentional,’” Campbell said. “That story is very different than giving somebody a six-month window, where they are trying to defend themselves against accusations they are a cheater.”

Questions still remain about the policy change. If a fighter is pulled from a scheduled fight due to a provisional suspension, how will the UFC address that, if at all? If there is no announcement about a potential violation in these cases, it could lead to the public speculating on fighters who withdraw from fights due to legitimate injuries.

If a high-profile fighter is inactive for a long period of time, that could also lead to the public speculating on whether or not that fighter failed a drug test and is waiting for USADA to fully adjudicate the case. With the lack of transparency on potential violations, could more clean fighters have suspicion cast on them?

In a case like Jon Jones, where an athletic commission or other regulator body also retains jurisdiction, it is assumed that the information about a failed drug test would come to light before the conclusion of the USADA adjudication process. Jones had to go before the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) for a hearing long before Jones went to arbitration in his USADA case and a sanction was given.

Campbell also told ESPN that the UFC is considering changing the maximum level of suspension for a second-time offender, if — like with Jones — it is determined that the fighter did not intentionally attempt to cheat. Right now, a second-time offender under the anti-doping policy faces a four-year ban.

”This program is meant to punish and catch intentional cheaters,” Novitzky told ESPN. “None of us are saying there will be no liability when it comes to unintentional use, but to punish that level of liability in the same manner of someone who was knowingly using something is not what this program was meant to do.”